When it comes to certain things, you just don’t want to know how they’re made. Madras, however, isn’t one of them, as its creation is pretty interesting. The following is a 2011 interview with Cape Madras cofounder Brian Sisselman, who provided these wonderful photos of madras being made in Southeast India, and tells us how your favorite summertime fabric is made.
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IS: Tell us about the company’s origins.
BS: Cape Madras started with the idea of creating the best madras in the world. Most madras comes from “supermarket” suppliers in the garment districts of India. My wife and I started in 2005 and spent two years in development learning about madras and finding weavers who could produce our fabric and colors.
Our business started in women’s apparel but from day one we thought our primary customer would be men. Now after seven years we are finally targeting men with Bermuda shorts, pants and shirts in short and long sleeve, and soon we’ll be delivering ties and sport jackets.
IS: How is your madras produced?
BS: To weave the highest-quality madras, we went to a small village in Tamil Nadu in Southeast India, the birthplace of madras, that’s been producing the fabric for over 100 years. Not the easiest route, but the one that would make our madras fabric stand out. We found out that the best madras comes from drying the yarns in fields with temperatures over 110 degrees at midday.
For sewing, at first we used factories in the cities but were disappointed in the quality. Going back to the weaving village, I found a group of tailors who had been commuting four hours every day by bus to work in sewing factories in the city. I decided to open a sewing shop in the village. Tailors are now able to stop commuting, work in their own village and spend more time with their families. And the quality they produce is superior to the factories in the city.
IS: You’re not modest about your quality.
BS: We make our madras using superior 100% combed cotton, 40/40s yarn, and increasing reeds and picks in the weaving process. We create all our yarns and dry them in the hottest time of the year. The weaving is done on power looms dating back 60 years.
Before we pick complementing colors in all our patchwork fabrics, we create hundreds of sample swatches on bit looms. With these 10-inch squares we build the color patterns for the patch fabrics we ultimately make into garments.
After all the fabrics are woven, we patch the fabrics and start the cutting and sewing process. We do all this in the same small village to insure the people have a commitment to quality from the yarns to the finished product. We do everything but plant the cotton seeds.
IS: What about bleeding madras? Was that always really a vice recast as a virtue?
BS: Well said. Colors back in the bleeding madras days came from vegetable dyes that would not hold their color to the yarns. The colors were limited: blue, dark red, burgundy, browns. From the beginning we wanted to modernize the old traditional madras colors, and without the limits of vegetable dyes we can offer an unlimited palette of colors.
IS: Where are you based?
BS: Cape Elizabeth, Maine. The business has grown out of our basement, and through the beauty of technology I can SKYPE with the weavers and tailors any time. Separated by 8,000 miles on this planet, but brought together with computers. The world really is flat.
IS: What do you like most about this fabric?
BS: If it shows signs of wear and tear, it only it looks better. I know this might not mean a lot to most people, but for me the search to make the best madras has helped define my life. I’ve met people who love to share stories of a madras shirt or dress that they still have in their closet. Like lines on a face, your madras will have stories to tell of where it’s been.
1) Madras yarns dry in the fields at temperatures as high as 115 degrees. 2) An ox-pulled cart delivers yarns for dyeing. 3) Dyed yarns are taken to the field for drying. 4) After drying, yarns are made into thread on weaving looms. 5) This traditional 25-pound iron is filled with coal embers.